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The Elephant in the Room: Addressing Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual Abuse. This is probably one of the least attractive subjects to address within the ministry aspect of caring for survivors, yet I have heard countless stories from survivors who have experienced varying degrees of spiritual abuse from individuals, organizations, and churches that they encountered after “leaving the life.”

What is spiritual abuse? There are a myriad of definitions and explanations of spiritual abuse dependent upon where you look. The definition that I found most suitable to this discussion is this: “Spiritual abuse is a distortion and exploitation of spiritual authority to manipulate, control, use, or harm others, mostly through shame and fear. It’s using vulnerability — it’s using really good things to exploit.”

What are signs of spiritual abuse?

  • Someone who “hears God” on your behalf and insists that you heed the word

  • Lording over others in power/authority, limiting free will, or alternate viewpoints

  • Rewarding obedience with praise and perks

  • Using confidential/secret information as a tool for compliance

  • Using manipulation, silent treatment and/or threats of rejection to control others

  • Using scripture in a harmful manner by inducing legalism, guilt, shame, or judgment

  • Attempting to cast out a dissociative personality, treating the part as a demon

This list is not exhaustive, but gives examples to illustrate whether spiritual abuse may be present. 

I believe that God is the absolute solution to healing for survivors of human trafficking. I watched God move in miraculous ways in the lives of women in our safe house. But this was not because we told them that they had to be a Christian, complete bible studies, or go to church, rather it was the intentional approach of loving and honoring the women and giving them a safe space to just be. This approach seemed to make many of them curious about why we were different from encounters they had in their pasts. Our team held the belief that it was crucial to meet each of the survivors where they were, but we were excited to pray with and for them if the opportunity presented itself. 

There is nothing more beautiful than when a survivor encounters and feels the presence of Jesus. My hope is that we can all foster relationships with survivors that allow these moments to happen holistically. I would love to hear your thoughts on what we can do to make sure we are creating a safe space for these precious survivors. 

Barnett, J. (2023, August 16). What is spiritual abuse? and how do we heal from it?. Sojourners. 


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